Shinesparkers Feature: Interview: Retro Studios

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Original publication date: April 16, 2003
Let’s hear from the development company Retro Studios, decorated by its brilliant debut!
The fourth interview is with the development staff at Retro Studios, who opened up a new frontier with first-person games through Metroid Prime. What were the challenges for those bearing the most respect in the Metroid fanbase.


A development studio from Austin, Texas, USA. They have the latest technology in theatres and motion capture rooms. A lot of its staff started out with PC games, and they have a very high engineering power/know-how when it comes to first-person games. Metroid Prime, released in November last year in the US, is the staff’s first product, and it got great reviews in all of America. In 2002, they were acquired by Nintendo 100%, and became a second-party developer.

– How long was the time of development?
Mike: Metroid Prime’s development time took, roughly speaking, 2 and a half years.– When developing for the Game Cube, what were the challenges, or the things that were different on this hardware?
Mark: The GameCube’s hardware is really powerful, so for the development side of things, so we could squeeze out more stuff and content out of it. It’s a great advance in technology, but at the same time, making a world up to its fine details, and to make thoroughly intertwined game content does take a lot of time, so it’s a big burden on the creative side of things. For us to make that commitment to Metroid Prime’s level of quality and details, it’s all about having artists, engineers, or designers that excel in their fields.
– What’s more, when making a major franchise along with Nintendo, are there any anecdotes you’d like to share with us?

Mike: All of the design and direction of Metroid Prime were a collaboration between Retro Studios and [Nintendo’s] Information Development department. “Communication” played a big role in Metroid Prime’s quality and direction. We’ve exchanged hundreds, if not thousands, of emails, and we’ve made so many phone and video conferences. To ease that communication, some of the Research and Development department staff went to Texas, and at the same time, we’ve also exchanged some Retro Studios staff over to the Information Development department.
– Bringing Metroid from planning to 3D was also a theme, wasn’t it?

Mark: The Metroid project was suggested to Retro Studios from the start, and Miyamoto-san (The head of Nintendo’s Research and Development) has drawn the concept of a first-person Metroid game. Hence, the 3D direction was there for the very start. A first-person game really does bring an essential change to the game’s focus. We first considered how each of Samus’s abilities would properly translate to a first-person perspective (It’s really hard to properly make the Screwattack in first person). On top of that, it was necessary to create exciting new elements such as the “visor system” so that the players could enjoy themselves in that first-person view. When designing for the concept of a 3D Metroid, our attention wasn’t focused on “what you cannot do”, rather on “What would Samus do in this situation”. While development was going on, this way of thinking of how this game should end up turned out being very, very helpful.
– Furthermore, how did you take the essence of a Metroid game while translating it to 3D?
Mark: I believe the essence of the Metroid series consists of three basic features: Atmosphere, exploration, and Samus. For Metroid’s atmosphere, it’s a very creepy science-fiction theme, and we thought about how to smoothly infuse it into a lively 3D world. We were very surprised on how a 2D side-scrolling adventure could have such an atmosphere. While inheriting this “Metroidy atmosphere” according to the Game Cube hardware’s strengths, we’ve managed to create a 3D space where the player can explore and feel this atmosphere.For Metroid’s exploration elements, the first-person perspective was a very good match. Miyamoto-san told us that the best way to look around was to switch to a first-person perspective. Thus, for the game’s exploration purpose, the first-person perspective was ideal. We’ve taken this concept at heart, and created a world where the player has to look around the surroundings to discover things.

In America, we think that Samus is one of the coolest game characters created so far. The goal that was given to us was to make Samus leave an impression not only like the older games did, but also so that the player thinks that “they ARE Samus”. This was without a doubt a very hard thing to pull off. While getting help from the R&D department, we’ve tried and figured out a lot of things that would give the player an impression that they are in the action themselves. For example, when an enemy’s secretions splatter on the visor, the visor would short out, and you would see Samus’s reflection on the visor’s glass, or having her left hand appear on the screen when getting shot. These acts would not only convey the action to the player, it also lets the player share Samus’s strategic choices. We really wanted to add in elements that would make the player thing “That’s cool!”.

– In Metroid Prime’s appeals, what is the part that Japanese players would enjoy the most?
Mark: First, we think they’ll like the game’s “visor system”. When changing visors, the player can discover many different things. For instance, if they want to know more about the story or the enemies, go and scan them. If you want to find an enemy that’s hiding in the darkness, just switch to the thermal visor. To find out things hidden in a certain area, it’s the X-Ray visor. We hope that everyone playing the game explores, and investigates, the wonderful world of Metroid Prime that we’ve created.The Morphball is also an outstandingly original ability. It’s a really fun item to play with, but it also has many applications in the game. Since the Morphball’s design isn’t purposed for combat, the player can use it for transportation, to find hidden paths, or to solve puzzles. The Morphball really does differentiate this game from other FPS games, doesn’t it?
– Metroid Prime does belong to the so-called FPS genre, but about the differences with other FPSes, what was the intention from the development side?
Mark: From the get go, we went by the perception that Metroid was more about exploration than anything. While shooting is an important component, we cannot say it’s the focus of the game. With this way of thought as a base, the biggest part of the game design was directed towards a world where the player will wonder “What should I do?”. Since we thought more about the adventure aspect of the game rather than the shooting aspect, we started calling this game a “First Person Adventure”.A lot of Samus’s abilities are made for an exploration system. The several visors she can use are an example of that. The system of using the different visors to check the surroundings and solve puzzles was an important first step of changing the concept of existing first-person games.

And it’s not just the visors; the Morph Ball is another important element that distinguishes Metroid Prime from different first-person games, but that was a big challenge. Around when we first started talking about the idea of Metroid Prime, we all thought that we just couldn’t make a Metroid game without the Morph Ball. What’s more, the way we designed the Morph Ball to be used made us all think that it should be presented in a third-person view. The switch to first person to third person was a tough challenge, but since it came out even better than we thought it would, we concentrated on what role we should give to the Morph Ball in the game. Comparing the Morph Ball with the first-person game state of Samus and her arm cannon, the Morph Ball was intentionally designed for the modes without combat. Since that round ball form doesn’t evoke a feeling of power, it doesn’t answer the nature of combat. The Morph Ball is much more useful than that, and we positioned it as a key for the game’s strategy to be a cool item.

Furthermore, this game’s giant bosses are another difference from other FPSes, too. Each boss can be defeated with a specific item in Samus’s arsenal. Those boss battles are very exciting, and it’s not something you see too often in this genre.

We’ve also intentionally acknowledged the risks in the part where we undertook a new approach method. This game’s lock-on system is very different from other FPS games, and it became easy to handle for any player.

– FPS on consumer hardware don’t use a mouse for their operation interface which tends to make them pretty frustrating to play, but in Prime, the automatic aim and lock-on movement gives it a really strong feeling of playability. Could you tell us of the parts that struck you/required an effort when designing the interface?

Karl: Well, the first step was to determine why first-person games were difficult to control on home consoles. Our conclusion was that aiming at the enemies and keeping them in sight was a really difficult thing. The way we solved this was that we designed it to set up the enemy at the centre of the screen with the lock-on system when necessary.
When we were moving forward with this draft, at first, we were afraid that the game would become way too simple. I think we were able to overcome that problem by shifting the game’s focus from “aiming” to “strategic decisions”, and by adjusting the aggressiveness of the enemy’s attacks. We’re very satisfied by these results, and we think that those features all make the player have an easier time playing.

– While being in a 3D world, the map really makes it easy to grasp the terrain. Please tell us if you’ve had any difficulties in designing the map system interface.
Karl: Development of this part was very smooth as we know from the beginning that a 3D map was the best way to guide the player in a 3D world.
– Please tell us the background of how the very impressive virus-looking screen came to be, and its meaning.

Karl: The concept was envisioned by the process of how a Metroid hijacks the body of the enemies and undergoes biological regeneration. Both of these concepts have a very “virus-looking” image. These images ended up becoming a visual expression on the title screen. It’s an atmosphere that flows through the whole game.
– Are there plans for a sequel? If there is, what parts would you like to power up, and what would you like to change?
Mike: There are a lot of discussions going on about a sequel to Metroid Prime, but for now we’ll just enjoy the success of Metroid Prime.

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